Friday, December 4, 2009

Hustling, Schools and the Education of Inner City Boys- Reflections on a Talk by Street Lit Authoer "Jihad"

Dr Mark Naison

Jihad’s talk in our Hip Hop Street Lit Narratives class last week helped me understand some very important issues- one of which is the failure of schools to engage working class students of color, particularly boys. Jihad , a very successful "street lit" author, was one of those boys who found nothing in school to connect with. Even though he had black teachers, even though black notables came to his school to talk about their successes and inspire students to emulate them, and even though he was clearly incredibly intelligent, Jihad was stubbornly resistant to reading and any form of academic engagement. It was only when he went to prison, in his late teens that he immersed himself in books. It was only then that he became immersed in reading and discovered that history and philosophy and political theory could help him make sense of the world and his own place in it

As Jihad described his experiences, it became clear to me that the environment he grew up in, during the late 70’s and early 80’s, was very different from the Black, inner city communities I had spent time in during the late 60’s. First of all, political revolutionaries were no longer a presence. They were not giving speeches on street corners, not selling their newspapers outside the convenience story, not talking about Black unity and revolution at the dinner table or in the barber shop. But something else, maybe something even more important, was also missing from Jihad’s life, and that is black men who went to work in the morning and came back at night after working a long hard day with money in their pocket and the satisfaction of a job well done. Those kind of black men were still highly visible in inner city neighborhoods in the late 60’s- they worked in steel mills and auto factories, drove trucks and buses, owned their own cabs and the like .But by the time Jihad was growing up, the black male working class was fast disappearing as a force in inner city neighborhods. The only Black people making good money, legally, were people working in white collar occupations, often with college degrees and they were moving out of inner city neighborhoods into the suburbs

Given this, what kind of Black men did Jihad see and interact with during his childhood and adolescence? To an extraordinary extent, the black men Jihad was meeting, interacting with and modeling himself on, including his own father, were getting most of their income in the underground economy and were living lives that occasionally offered great rewards, but also involved danger and instability. I think we need to probe implications of this economic transformation.

What does it meant to grow up in a neighborhood where the primary source of work and income, at least for men, is illegal activity? In the neighborhood Jihad grew up in, “hustling” was more than just a source of income, it was a whole way of life with its own language, forms of dress, gender roles and family dynamics. Men who made their money illegally, and were at constant risk of imprisonment and death, were unlikely to commit themselves to the kind of stable family relationships that someone who worked in a steel mill or an auto plant might do.. They moved in and out of relationships with women and had only a tangential relationship to the children they fathered.

In addition, their ways of earning income seemed to have little relationship to books or to the disciplined learning environments schools tried to provide. What made men successful in the underground economy was bravery, quick thinking, and capacity to persuade and inspire through ghetto centric language that barely bore little relationship to the vocabulary and sentence structure offered in third grade reading and social studies. Hustlers communicated through an insider’s language that was indecipherable to most middle class people, black as well as white. But it was that language that was the language of money, the language of success, and the language of power in the neighborhood Jihad grew up in!!!

As a bright male child growing up in an environment where most of the money came from illegal activities, and where the men involved in those activities dressed, spoke and carried themselves in a way that bore no resemblance to anything presented in school, Jihad naturally concluded that school had no relevance to someone like him. Money, power, respect, in his neighborhood, and in his family—at least for boys came through mastery of the hustlers code, the hustlers language, the hustlers lifestyle, and ultimately, through recruitment into the alternative economy that hustlers has created.

Once a young man has the realization that the street economy is going to be their only path to money and respect and the good things in life- and for some it can come as early as 8 years old--, teachers are facing an uphill battle to get them engaged in reading writing and math, especially since the language used in teaching those subjects, whether in readers, or on tests, is totally different from the language of the street economy

What you have then is a battle of language loyalties with the teacher on one side and the hustlers the young men aspire to be on the other, and that is a battle the teacher will usually lose –not because the hustler’s language is “blacker” or more ‘authentic” but because in the young person’s neighborhood, the hustler’s language is the language of
SUCCESS, or at least what little success there is

From the outside, we may think that turning off school, for a young person who grew up the way Jihad did, is short sighted and self-destructive, but given the limited opportunities for employment in the legal economy that he saw in his neighborhood and family, looking to the hustling culture rather than school as the place to invest his energies may be a rational decision

If this analysis is correct, we are going to face an uphill battle in trying to get inner city boys to become engaged in school unless we can rebuild and reconstruct legal economic opportunities for men of color that equal those offered by hustling and the underground economy

Children look at what they see around them and decide, fairly early what works, and what doesn’t. And in many neighborhoods around this country, there is no evidence, especially for boys that school leads to economic opportunities for people like them.

Until that changes, don’t expect school reform to accomplish very much

Dr Mark Naison
December 4, 2009


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